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Some of the poolroom proprietors on hand last week in St. Louis to watch the U.S. Open pocket billiards championship confided that whenever Jackie Gleason's movie The Hustler appears on local television, business in their establishments doubles the next day. Nevertheless the Billiard Congress of America, whose letterhead is as long and respectable-looking as that of your Community Chest, has chosen to try to mute the more raffish aspects of the game. To that end this year they added a new element—a national championship tournament for women, the first held since a one-timer in 1935.
So the 1967 tournament named two champions, both of them grandparents. Jimmy Caras, 58, of Springfield, Pa., four times a world champion but mostly out of competition since his last title in 1949, won the men's championship and $3,000. Mrs. Dorothy Wise, 52, of Redwood City, Calif. took $500 first money in the women's division. Mrs. Wise has been waiting a long time for someone to put on a national event for women so that she could prove what some people have known for years—that she is probably the best lady pool player in the country.
Last week the country's best pocket-billiard players came to St. Louis. Luther Lassiter, Irving Crane, Joe Balsis and Caras were there; also on hand were Red Raider Breit, the Knoxville Bear (Eddie Taylor), Weenie Beanie Staton, Machine Gun Lou Butera and Champagne Eddie Kelly. Present, too, for the double elimination tournament were Mrs. Wise, gentle and gray-haired; San Lynn Merrick, a teacher of speech at Rockhurst College in Kansas City; Sheila Bohm, a nurse's aid in Rochester, Ind.; Betty Jo Hember, who teaches physical education in the high school in Eudora, Kans.; Chari Fate, a 15-year-old from Williamston, Mich.; Susan Sloan, who attends an IBM computer school in Beaumont, Texas, where she is studying to be a systems analyst; and 19-year-old Jackie Gorecki, a Grand Rapids office receptionist who had to brush the shoulder-length blonde hair out of her blue eyes almost every time she aimed a ball at a pocket.
Wimpy Lassiter, a bachelor and philosopher as well as a cheerful hypochondriac and perennial champion, reacted cordially to the intrusion of these aliens, two of whom, Miss Gorecki and Mrs. Bohm, dismayed spectators by strolling away from the table in the midst of a tense match for five minutes in the powder room. They came back with make-up restored to resume play.
"It pleases me," Lassiter said of the female presence. "A place where people meet to play pool should be like any other classy meeting place—a country club, a theater or a fine restaurant." Wimpy, who probably has played in as many murky poolrooms as anyone, continued, "It should be a place with piped-in music and carpets on the floor, a place where women can come and feel at ease. It frightens me to think of some of the places I went in when I was 20 years younger."
The Gold Room of the venerable Sheraton-Jefferson Hotel met most of Lassiter's tests for a genteel place to play pool. A spacious hall, it was dominated by a chandelier over the center table that would have fitted the decor of the palace of Versailles. Suspended over the four tables in the corners of the room were only slightly smaller rose-colored chandeliers. The room's golden walls were broken by a series of mirrors flanked by gold-brocaded draperies. The carpet was thick and flowered, and there wasn't a spittoon on the premises. Among the spectators, nearly 1,000 of whom turned out for the finals on Friday evening, filter cigarettes outnumbered cigars 200 to 1. The setting might have dismayed a romantic, reared on tales of taciturn pool hustlers playing for fabulous stakes in smoky dives. It was as if an Old West buff had gone to Abilene in search of the shoot-'em-up saloons of the old cattle-trail days, only to find them gone and the town engrossed in talk about the new Eisenhower Chapel.
Blue blazers worn with blue-and-silver striped ties were required garb for the players (the women wore red coats). So there the male contestants were, looking like nothing so much as a band of slightly ravaged veterans of life who had decided to play a sardonic joke and dress up like a college football team on the road. No conformist, Lassiter wore his blue blazer reluctantly after proclaiming that he would far rather play in a sweat shirt. As it turned out, Wimpy might have been happier if he hadn't showed up for the finals at all. He moved into the last night easily enough, although fretting frequently over a case of sinusitis and announcing that his doctor had just discovered that he had high blood pressure.
In a double elimination tournament, the championship match pits an undefeated player, in this case Lassiter, against a player who has lost once but has then emerged as winner of the loser's bracket. The best of the losers tries to win everything by beating the undefeated player twice. This turned out to be Caras, who, in order to win the tournament, played 12 matches, winning 11 of them, while Lassiter was playing only eight.
In the final day of the tournament Caras was faced with the seemingly insuperable task of playing and winning four matches. Early in the afternoon he beat Dallas West of Loves Park, Ill. 150-69. Later he bested Defending Champion Irving Crane of Rochester, N.Y. 150-82, finishing out the game with a run of 43. Then all he had to do was beat Lassiter twice in one evening.
While Wimpy spent most of the evening sitting in a chair eating cherry drops and bewailing his health, Caras was busy making run after run. Caras moves briskly, makes his shots rapidly, in contrast to the leisurely Lassiter. "Why should a professional player hesitate?" said Caras. "I know what I want to do, and I do it." And he did, beating Wimpy 150-82 in the first game.